(Fiction) What’s the trick?

The next day was dark and rainy. But it never came down very hard. Not enough to put you to sleep. Not enough to bring earthworms from the ground or flowers from the trees. Just enough to be sad. To keep everyone inside. I was grounded anyway, so it was fine with me.

Mom called. Dad had left her a message. About me. He told her about the hospital. Then they started talking about the lot. They were arguing about it. I never saw my dad get as mad as when he was talking to my mom. It scared me sometimes. I went up to my room.

Later that day, we had a visitor. I think Dad told me he was coming but I had forgot. Uncle Oliver wasn’t really my uncle. He was my dad’s cousin. But my parents said I should call him Uncle because they weren’t sure how that made us related. I said we were also cousins, but removed, because we had learned about that in a big genealogy project at school. But Dad said to call him Uncle anyway. He was a loud man.

He scowled at his plate. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?”

Mr. A. Tranjay nodded.

Uncle Oliver and I sat at the kitchen table. Dad was in his office with the door closed. He was on the phone with his lawyer who was on the other line with Mom’s lawyer. Uncle Oliver seemed really confused. And maybe a little worried. He had come to see how things were working out with Mr. A. Tranjay. Plus he heard I had run away. I think he thought maybe they were related. He looked at me. I had already taken two bites. He looked back at the sandwich in his hand. He rubbed the long hairs on his head that he combed over the bare spot to make it look like he had more hair.

“What’s the trick?” he asked.

“There is no trick,” Mr. A. Tranjay said.

“What’s in it?”

“Peanuts.”

“And?”

Mr. A. Tranjay reached for the colorful plastic jar and started to read the ingredients. “Peanuts. Salt. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” He set it down.

Uncle Oliver wasn’t convinced. “No bugs? Or larva?”

“No bugs.”

“No human excrement?”

Mr. A. Tranjay scowled. “I have never served excrement.”

I laughed with a mouthful.

“He does!” Uncle Oliver objected.

He sniffed the sandwich. It must have smelled fine because he took a bite. He chewed slowly. His lips smacked as he looked at me. I had eaten one half of my sandwich all the way down to the crust, and there was nothing else left but bite marks. I had purple jelly smeared on my cheeks, like a smiling clown. I don’t like clowns.

Uncle Oliver nodded reluctantly to the chef and turned to me. “So.” He stopped. He always got hung up on my name. He thought it was silly for Mom and Dad to name me that. “Ólafur. How are you enjoying your time with Mr. Étranger?”

I nodded. With Mr. A. Tranjay there it only seemed polite.

Uncle Oliver and I were named after the same man, but my great-aunt called him Oliver because she thought it was the same and she preferred to use “the American spelling” because they believed that’s what Great-Grandpa Ólafur would have wanted. It was really important to him that all his kids sound American and not like foreigners. That was a long time ago, I think. I asked my dad, if that’s what Great-Grandpa wanted, why didn’t he and Mom do the same thing, and he said because his aunt was wrong and Oliver and Ólafur weren’t really the same name at all, plus things weren’t like how they used to be and we should respect the old country. That’s where Great-Grandpa Ólafur was from. The old country. They have trolls and gnomes there. And it’s very cold, so everyone wears animal fur. Uncle Oliver said they discovered America first even though my history book said it was Columbus. I asked my teacher which was right and she said it was Uncle Oliver but that they expected us to say Columbus on the test so that’s what I should put at the end of the year. I asked her why they wanted to teach us the wrong thing and she asked me to go back to my seat.

Uncle Oliver swallowed the bite from his sandwich and took a drink. “What has he done? Is he cooking you all kinds of fun things?”

“I talked to a stag,” I explained. “It was dead though.”

“A stag?” Uncle Oliver looked impressed, and then he gave Mr. A. Tranjay a wink. “And what did the stag have to say?”

“I’m not supposed to tell.”

“How come?” Uncle Oliver pulled his sandwich apart and looked hard at the insides when Mr. A. Tranjay turned to the sink.

“Because it’s a secret.”

“Why is it a secret?”

I had to think for a moment. “That’s a secret, too.”

“Well, if you can’t tell anyone, and you can’t tell them why you can’t tell them, what’s the point of the stag telling it to you?”

“He said there would be a good time to say it, and I should hold on to it until then. But I should practice saying it in my head every day, just never out loud. If I say it out loud, then it loses . . .” I scowled. “Something. And I’ll need every last bit of it when the time comes.”

“Ohhh.” Uncle Oliver was confused. “I see.”

He used the voice adults use when they don’t really take you seriously. Like the time I told my dad about the willow tree growing in my closet. Hundreds of old metal keys dangled from the branches like fruit. Dad said willow trees don’t make fruit. It was there for a week. I was seven. I couldn’t get into my closet so I could only wear clothes out of my dresser, old clothes that didn’t fit me anymore. The other kids laughed. Then one day it was gone and I could get into my closet and wear my regular clothes again.

“So it’s important, this secret word.”

“Very.”

I chewed the last of my sandwich and set the second crust next to the first. Dad gave up trying to get me to eat them. Mom always made me.

“Well, are you going to see your friend the stag again?”

“He’s not really my friend. I don’t think. We haven’t played together or anything. He just tells me things. I think he’s waiting for something.”

“Waiting? For what?”

“I think somebody’s gonna die.”

Uncle Oliver pointed a big, round finger at Mr. A. Tranjay. “Don’t make me regret this.”

Mr. A. Tranjay raised both his hands. “It is not my doing.”

“People are looking for you, you know. I could very easily let them know about this arrangement, NDA or not.”

Mr. A. Tranjay nodded. “Has anyone approached you?”

“No. Why would they? We’re enemies. Or something like that. Everyone knows it. I’m starting to think that’s the whole reason you came to me for help. Because no one would ever suspect. And here I was touched.”

Mr. A. Tranjay scoffed. “We are not enemies.”

“Then what are we? Friends?”

“I have always respected you.”

“Oh, bullshit!” Uncle Oliver was loud.

Mr. A. Tranjay gave a little shrug. “But you are still a bureaucrat.”

“Can you believe this guy?” Uncle Oliver wanted me on his side. “I help him and he responds by insulting me.”

“You want me to sugarcoat the truth?” Mr. A. Tranjay motioned to the pans in the sink. “I can make a nice glacé very quickly.”

I didn’t know what that was.

“Rules are there for a reason,” my uncle objected.

“Yes, to prevent people from getting sick. But no one has gotten sick on my food.”

I fed my crusts to Wilson when no one was looking. Wilson liked the crusts.

“That’s not true.” Uncle Oliver turned back to me. If he noticed Wilson, he didn’t say. “His last dinner. The very last food circus. Last thing he did before he opened the Bistro. It’s all there online. It was the first thing I ever read about the man. Know what he did? Made his guests sick. Made them throw up. First one lost it right at the table and most of the others followed on sight. Some people tried to hang on but no one made it to the end. The final dish. It’s still a mystery.” He turned back to the chef. “What was it going to be? That Spanish cheese with the live maggots in it. What’s it called?”

Casu marzu.”

“Yeah. Or maybe a cold soup made from cat piss. You do that kind of thing in Australia or Africa or wherever and maybe you’re the only one who gets in trouble. But that’s not how it works here.” Uncle Oliver turned to my dad as he walked into the room. “I can’t deal with him.”

“Ólafur, go upstairs.” My dad was scowling.

I could tell by his voice that it was serious adult stuff. I didn’t like being the kid, but I figured it would be boring anyway. I wanted to draw, but I was afraid my dad would get scared. He was always scared now. I could tell. He was always checking on me and doing things for me and looking at me when he thought I couldn’t see. I think he loves me but maybe he doesn’t like me very much. I didn’t want to be bad. I laid on the rug in my room with Wilson and Betsy and I tried to think of a plan. I was going to draw it out in marker. I had a blank sheet of paper and I put our house and Newcombe Street on it. Then I put the hollow and the big freeway. But that’s as far as I got.

I saw Ribbon in the corner under my bed. He was always hiding. He was a silly cat. I saw him hiding and it gave me an idea. Maybe I could trap it somehow. Like the guys on the Discovery Channel. So I went downstairs to watch TV and learn how to trap wild animals. But I fell asleep on the couch.

I woke up past dinner. Dad must have let me sleep. He said because I had been gone I didn’t have to go to school until next week, so I could sleep in and my teacher would bring my homework. I didn’t want to do it.

Uncle Oliver had left. I could tell because there was no yelling. Mr. A. Tranjay was sitting at the dining room table with his back to me, but I could see his face when he turned. He looked like he might throw up at any moment. He had a full glass of wine. I don’t think he drank any. He was facing my dad, who was half-hidden by the wall. There was an open bottle on the table next to him and a couple plates and dishes. Dad was telling Mr. A. Tranjay about Mom. It seems like that’s all he talked about, especially when he was drinking.

I was going to get up, but then Mr. A. Tranjay asked my dad about me, about what had happened, so I stayed still and listened.

“Oh, goodness.” My dad sat back. “There was an incident.”

I laid on the couch in the living room and pretended to be asleep.

“We moved out here—well, the plan had always been to renovate, to get out of the city. But I think Janet and I both would have preferred a little more time. To get ready. It’s hard for me to run my business from so far away, although the distance has been a blessing what with all of the excitement lately.”

“Of course.”

“Janet wasn’t ready at all. She preferred to let it all go, the whole thing, to send him back to school as if nothing had happened. I insisted on the change. I don’t think she ever really made peace with it. She hated it here. She started to resent everything. Most of all me, for pushing it.” My dad took a drink from his big wine glass. “But the truth is, things had been bad between us for a long time.”

“What kind of incident?”

I think Mr. A. Tranjay wanted to change the subject. Dad always made everything about him and Mom. I don’t think he ever stopped. I could tell it made people uncomfortable.

“A child was kidnapped. A little girl. It was horrible.” My dad shook his head. I could tell by the way his glass shook. “A nightmare. She was in a cage. Like an animal. She had these . . . marks on her body. They looked like bites and stings. She was covered in them, like a disease. The place stank of filth. And they never caught the guy. That was probably the scariest part.

“When the police arrived, they found Ólafur curled up on the floor outside the cage, sleeping. He was holding her hand through the bars. He had a single large welt on his chest. He’d been crying, it seems, and had worn himself out.” My dad sat up and raised a finger. “But there was nothing to indicate he was in any way involved.”

“Of course.”

“Sorry if I seem defensive. There were some suggestions at the time. There are plenty of stories, you know. About kids getting into witchcraft or whatever. Hurting each other.”

“Urban legends,” Mr. A. Tranjay said softly.

“Sure. But in a way, I can understand. A horrible tragedy like that, the circumstances . . . It was very unusual for him to go missing from class. He was such a good boy. Before. I can see where people might talk. If the roles were reversed, who knows what I would’ve thought?”

“Did he say what happened?”

“No. But he had an alibi.” My dad snorted. A little spit came out, and he covered his mouth. “Sorry. It’s just, you haven’t lived until you’ve had to provide proof of an alibi for your 7-year-old son. It was all so ridiculous, with the police and everything. Of course it didn’t help that Ólafur claimed . . .” My dad swirled his wine in the glass. “He claimed that there was some kind of ghost or something.” He shrugged.

“Oh, really?”

That seemed to interest Mr. A. Tranjay. I could tell because he lifted his head to look my dad in the eye for the first time.

“He said there was all kinds of vermin on her. That’s where the marks came from. Cockroaches. Mosquitoes. Rats.” Dad looked down at his twirling wine. “But . . . it’s over. And we shouldn’t dwell on something so horrible.” He finished his wine. “More?”

Mr. A. Tranjay put his hand over his glass politely.

My dad drained the bottle into his. It nearly filled it. “I have to say, it’s nice having someone out here. An adult, I mean. I love my son, but he’s not much for conversation.”

“How is he? Now?”

My dad took another drink. “He has nightmares. Or at least he did until just recently. But then, who wouldn’t after something like that? And we took him to the doctor, if that’s what you’re asking. Of course we did. Three months of therapy. Not that he ever seemed to need it, which worried us more than anything! Every night he’d wake up screaming, but every day he was fine. Sad, of course. About the girl. Every time it came up, with the police or whatever, he would just start to cry. He’d turn to the nearest person and hide his face. It broke everyone’s heart to see. But otherwise he seemed like his normal self.”

“Children can be very resilient.”

“Oh, sure. But it’s easy to imagine some trauma hidden just below the surface, something you could find and deal with if only you were a little more diligent. Do you have children?”

Mr. A. Tranjay nodded.

“Then you know being a parent is a lot like being a backseat driver. Every turn, every brake seems so much less certain when you’re not the one with your hands on the wheel. We kept taking him to the sessions. Two different doctors. We tried group settings. We tried individual. I would wait for him outside, half holding my breath, trying to hear what they were talking about. In the end, they never found anything.”

My dad shrugged and took another big gulp.

“The girl was another story. Catatonic, poor thing. Like the world had scared her so much, all she could do was hide from it. And her poor parents . . . I met them once at the hospital. They were aloof—suspicious of Ólafur’s involvement, I suppose—and in such shock. They were just kind of wandering around like they had no clue what to do. We rush through life so much of the time. Our minds are never in the present, except to check that our child did their homework or to answer email at the dinner table. We’re always looking ahead to the next day of work, to the weekend’s chores, to the grocery list, to soccer games and vacations that never arrive. In a moment, these people were pulled back into the present, and their whole future, all those plans, just disappeared. It was like they had no idea what to do, what to think, even.”

My dad made a curious face. “She wasn’t raped. Thankfully. But then, it was nothing anyone could explain either. At least not without considerable strain.” He grew half a smile. His eyelids drooped. He hesitated. “How much do you know about the occult?”

“I dabbled.”

“Oh?”

“As a younger man.”

“I see. Well, it’s something of a hobby with me.” He swirled his wine. “I’m something of a savant on the subject, actually.”

“Is that so?”

“Or, at least, I was. Before I got married. Janet never liked me to talk about it.” My dad’s face was very red from drinking. He scratched his beard. I knew what that meant. “Which I could understand. That’s not something one likes to admit in polite society. Her father is a congressman, after all.”

“Oh? Washington?”

“Harrisburg.”

“I see.”

“We always had to remember that the things we did affected him. We had to respect that.”

“Of course.” Mr. A. Tranjay drew his fingers over his lips. “You think they were supernatural? These marks?”

My dad settled back into his chair. “ ‘Supernatural’ is not a word we like to use.”

“Is that so? I didn’t know that.”

“Yes. It makes it all seem so hocusy-pocusy.”

“And it’s not like that?”

Dad shook his head. He took a breath to speak but Mr. A. Tranjay cut him off.

“Why did it spare your son?”

My dad stopped, confused. “What do you mean?”

“This occult force, why did it not harm your son?”

“I don’t know.” My dad drank again. His glass was nearly empty again. I could tell that his eyes weren’t very focused. And he was nervous. “I have these terrible thoughts. I can never bring myself to ask him. But I get why people were talking. I mean, how did Ólafur find her? Why was he holding her hand like that? And those awful marks on her skin. Like leeches or something.”

“Why wasn’t he scared?” Mr. A. Tranjay interrupted. He stood and walked behind his chair. I don’t think he was even listening to my dad anymore.

Dad put his hand over his mouth. He spoke through parted fingers. “Oh my God . . .” He looked at Mr. A. Tranjay with bloodshot eyes. “Oh my God, I never thought of that. Is that terrible? I was so scared. For the both of us. For everyone. I never even thought of that.” A moment passed. “You’re right. Oh my God. He was never scared.” He kept his hand over his bearded mouth. “Even when the police came. There was a girl in a cage. He was sad, but he never seemed scared.”

Then Mr. A. Tranjay turned his head and looked right at me, like he knew I was eavesdropping the whole time.


 

I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s scheduled to be released later this summer. You can sign up here to be notified.

You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.

The next chapter is: Time for dreaming

raven